HomePoliticsInside the January 6 FBI investigation into the Proud Boys

Inside the January 6 FBI investigation into the Proud Boys

In March 2021, two months later the FBI arrested Dominic Pezzola, a New York Proud Boy, accused of charges stemming from the attack on the Capitol, one of the main agents in the case made an unusual confession. On Lync, the office’s internal chat system, he said he felt sorry for the man he had helped arrest.

“Is it bad that I almost feel bad for Pezzola?” the agent, Nicole Miller, asked one of her colleagues.

When the colleague told him that Mr. Pezzola was in jail for decisions he had made, Officer Miller seemed to agree. But then, he went back into work mode.

“Oh no, I know,” he wrote. “His decisions of him put him where he is. He only feels for his children. However, I wonder if he will cooperate.”

This behind-the-scenes exchange, and hundreds like it, were contained in a log of Agent Miller’s messages on Lync, tracking her chats with other agents since January 6, 2021, when she was on duty in the bureau’s office. in Washington, until September 2022, a few months after she and her team helped bring sedition charges against Mr. Pezzola and four other members of the Proud Boys.

The record, obtained by The New York Times, provides a rare look into one of the Justice Department’s most important investigations from Jan. 6. It shows how Agent Miller and her colleagues scrambled to search for evidence and tried to recruit members of the far-right group as they grappled with the odds and ends of life, from exercising to coping with outdated technology. the office.

Some of Lync’s messages emerged recently when Officer Miller took the stand at the trial of Mr. Pezzola and his co-defendants: Enrique Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl. which is now taking place in the Federal District Court in Washington. On cross-examination, the men’s attorneys attempted to use the record to suggest that other officers who spoke with Officer Miller had committed crimes such as destroying evidence or scrutinizing emails between one of the defendants and his attorney in a violation of attorney-client privilege.

A lawyer for Pezzola described the messages as evidence of a “massive trail of FBI corruption,” but Judge Timothy J. Kelly, who is presiding over the trial, criticized that claim, saying it was “unfounded speculation that has no place in a courtroom.”

While the record obtained by The Times is missing several entries, it offers the most extensive portrait yet of internal FBI communications as agents investigated the sprawling Proud Boys case.

Agent Miller, a former Florida police officer, had been with the FBI for less than two years when the Capitol was invaded.

The messages show she was quickly appointed to a “conspiracy squad” of officers examining the roles far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia had played in the attack.

The arrest of Mr. Pezzola and another New York Proud Boy, William Pepe, helped Agent Miller build a bigger case against several of the people now on trial: Mr. Rehl, who ran the Philadelphia chapter of the cluster; Mr. Nordean, the so-called sergeant-at-arms of the Seattle chapter; Mr. Biggs, a top notch Florida Proud Boy; and Charles Donohoe, president of a North Carolina chapter.

As early as March 3, 2021, Agent Miller and others in the bureau’s Washington office were already discussing the search for Mr. Rehl’s home. A few days later, Agent Miller told her colleagues that the bureau had obtained Mr. Rehl’s cell phone location data and planned to take “Rehl’s stuff” to a grand jury.

Around the same time, she was juggling other tasks.

Agent Miller was also arranging a formal interview with a New York Proud Boy and “doing background reading” on several other Proud Boys cases. In a separate matter, he was also working on a never-filed conspiracy indictment against white nationalist Nick Fuentes and one of his allies, far-right troll Anthime Gionet, better known by her nickname Baked Alaska.

His fellow agents were impressed. “Wow,” wrote one of his colleagues in the Washington field office, “you’ve been at WFO for what, a year? and you are already dismantling things.”

After prosecutors obtained a conspiracy indictment against the leaders of the Proud BoysAgent Miller went ahead with the case.

In the spring of 2021, she and her team began examining the Proud Boys chapters in St. Louis and New York’s Hudson Valley. Around the same time, working with group chats obtained through their investigation, the team also identified a Proud Boy in Pennsylvania, John C. Stewart, who later pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and cooperated with the government’s case.

Along the way, the messages show, the agents kept in touch with their informants in the group. In April, an informant known as “Omlette” told his supervisors that the Proud Boys would likely participate in an upcoming “White Lives Matter” rally. In June, another informant, Kenneth Lizardo of Massachusetts, provided information for a search warrant. The messages mention other informants in Cleveland and Salt Lake City.

Throughout that year, Agent Miller and her team also tried to recruit new collaborators. One message suggests that Pezzola met with prosecutors in April 2021 for a formal interview known as an offer, but did not end up cooperating with the government.

Nicholas Ochs, who ran the Proud Boys chapter in Hawaii and was charged with conspiracy a month after the attack on the CapitolHe also met with prosecutors for an interview in the fall of 2021. But messages show the meeting didn’t go well either.

“Ochs offered us nothing,” Nicholas Hanak, another agent on the case, wrote to Agent Miller.

“Yeah,” Constable Hanak concluded, “no deal for him.”

The breakneck pace of the investigation was taking its toll.

By the summer of 2021, Agent Miller raised concerns with a colleague about losing comp time she had accrued. Other officers complained of gaining weight, missing family events and feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of leads they had to follow.

“Help,” a colleague wrote to Agent Miller in July.

The team found solace where they could. Colleagues often asked Agent Miller if they could visit her dog. Others spoke about the distractions found in Mexican food and the television show “Ted Lasso.”

In a shocking exchange in October, one of Agent Miller’s colleagues said he had been listening to Rehl fighting with his wife, presumably on a monitored jail line. Officer Miller wondered if the jailed Proud Boy had found out his wife was cheating on him, prompting the colleague to write, “lol I’ll get beer.”

In the same conversation, the other agent said that she had read a series of emails between Rehl and her attorney at the time, Jonathon Moseley. The messages indicated that Mr. Rehl planned to fight his charges at trial, a fact that the other officer asked Officer Miller not to disclose to the prosecutors in the case, lest they “freak out.”

Mr. Rehl’s current attorney, Carmen Hernandez, accused the FBI of violating her client’s rights by illegally seeking confidential communications with her former attorney. Prosecutors say Mr. Rehl had used a jailhouse email system that clearly stated that all messages from him were monitored as were phone lines, a move, they say, amounting to a waiver of attorney privilege. customer.

As the one year anniversary of January 6 approached, Agent Miller and her team continued to investigate new issues.

They began to focus on a group of Proud Boys that had been particularly violent on Capitol Hill: Ronald Loehrke, who had been in contact with Nordean before the attack occurred; James Haffner, who moved in with Loehrke on January 6; and two Proud Boys from Florida, AJ Fischer and Zachary Johnson.

All four men were ultimately charged.

In February 2022, Agent Miller finally took a breather in her investigation of one of her main targets: Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys. Earlier this month, she told a colleague that office technicians had extracted a Telegram group chat called “Ministry of Self-Defense” from Tarrio’s cellphone. Chat participants played a central role in the lead up to the attack on the Capitol and on the ground on January 6.

“It’s really good,” Agent Miller wrote of the salvaged chat, adding: “Enrique didn’t delete anything.”

He said there was something else on the phone: a “plan” that Tarrio and one of his girlfriends had “worked on.” That seemed to be a reference to a document called “1776 Returns”, containing a detailed plan to stake out and storm government buildings around the Capitol on January 6.

After calling Mr. Tarrio “a jerk” for leaving such material on his phone, Agent Miller’s colleague asked if the newly discovered information “would help us get over the hurdle of the conspiracy charge.”

Agent Miller said they could go ahead with a conspiracy case.

“We DEF can now,” he wrote.

A month later, Mr. Tarrio was arrested on a charge accusing him of conspiracy.

There was one more great opportunity.

Two days after Mr. Tarrio was charged, one of Agent Miller’s colleagues wrote to say that a lawyer for Jeremy Bertino, a North Carolina Proud Boy, had contacted him, suggesting that his client was interested in speaking with the researchers. The FBI had executed a search warrant at Mr. Bertino’s home the day before Mr. Tarrio’s arrest and discovered three AR-15-style rifles and a shotgun hidden behind a wall in the basement.

Agent Miller and her team ultimately determined that some of the weapons were unlicensed and could be subject to criminal charges. The messages also show that agents found video of Tarrio conversing with Bertino while Bertino was at a shooting range with his wife.

“We can’t make these things up!!” Agent Miller wrote.

Over the next several weeks, Mr. Bertino was interviewed at least three times by the prosecutors working on the case; and in October 2022, he formally pleaded guilty to not only a weapons charge, but also seditious conspiracy.

In February, a few weeks before Agent Miller herself testified in the Proud Boys trial, Bertino took the stand as a star government witness.

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